I never looked at my vulva until I had a reason to, like when I was trying to get pregnant or when I thought I had a yeast infection. By no means do I make it a “regular thing” to spend loads of time feeling or looking at my vulva — at least not in the light.
Too much information? I am a lesbian; I’ve seen enough vulvas to know that no two are alike. I have an appreciation for how different they are and have grown to value mine in ways I never expected. We all should — we only get one, and why not appreciate the one we have?
It’s taken me a while to get to this point of appreciation, to see my vulva for what it is and appreciate it in all of its glory, but I am here. I understand my vulva today more than I did when I was in my twenties, and I appreciate it more too.
So, let’s talk about our vulvas. It’s time to get to know them, show them some love — and be aware of any health issues that might arise along our journeys as proud vulva-owners.
First, let’s get the terminology out of the way. There are many women or people who use the word “vagina” to refer to their vulva. But that’s not quite right. As Anna Medaris Miller, a writer for Women’s Health Magazine, explains: “A vulva, by the way, is the name for the visible part of what most people just dub ‘vagina.’ It encompasses all the external parts of the female nether regions including the mons pubis (fatty patch perched atop your pubic bone), the labia (inner and outer lips framing the vaginal opening), the clitoris, and its protective hood, and more.”
Got it? Most importantly, have you looked at yours recently? No? You should. Here’s why.
Recently, I had a cancer scare, but not the common ones, like breast cancer or thyroid cancer, or ovarian cancer. No, I had a vulvar cancer scare. (Tell me about it — I didn’t even know such a thing existed.) I’ll spare you the details, but I underwent a vulva biopsy, and oh, was it painful. Honestly, I was embarrassed to tell anyone last fall, as I went through this scare, that I was going through such a thing. I felt like some weird anomaly, with this growth down there. I mean, who wants to talk about that?
But it’s important that we do. If we don’t, we can’t help others. I came out of the ordeal cancer-free, and with a newfound appreciation not only for my body, but for my vulva.
So, look at your vulva often: it could save your life. And, when you do, you’ll realize that yours is uniquely yours and it needs to be treated with love and care, just like the rest of your body.
If I did not look at my vulva from time to time, I would have never known to check for changes in it. Like all parts of our body, our vulva also changes during our lifespan. I highly recommend getting a mirror and spending a little time (in the daylight) looking at your own vulva.
If you need some inspiration, look no further than “In The Goop Lab,” with Gwyneth Paltrow (I know, I know, but hear me out). In episode 3, called “The Pleasure Is Ours,” we hear from some women who have never looked at their own genitalia. In this episode, women, with the help of sex educator Betty Dodson, are encouraged to build a relationship with their vulvas — in an effort to make them more comfortable with their own vulvas and own their own sexual experiences. There is even a workshop hosted by Betty, to help women get comfortable with their vulvas and with being fully present in their own bodies.
On the first day, there is a “genital show and tell,” in which a group of women sit together naked, looking at one another’s vulvas. In another scene, women are sitting with a mirror in front of their body, their bare vulvas, exploring what it looks like. If you don’t believe me, go check out the episode on Netflix. It’s a jaw-dropping episode; it’s also kind of sad to know that as women, so many of us are so out of touch with our own bodies for so many different reasons. Some of us compare ourselves and our intimate parts to the ones we see in porn, or the textbook image of what we think a vulva is supposed to look like. These are unfair comparisons to make given how different our bodies are from one another.
What I reaffirmed in the only show I’ve ever watched about vulvas is that there is a wide range of vulvas and that they all look different. I learned to appreciate pubic hair just as it is, my own and others, and that no two bushes are alike. Every vulva is different: some are larger, some are smaller, some have protruding labia and others do not.
Let’s restore vulva confidence by appreciating what you have, by taking a look at yours. Familiarizing yourself with your own anatomy will help you, if you’re struggling, to get to a place where you can understand your body in a deeper way.
Writer Clár McWeeney notes, “Positive genital self-image correlates with greater sexual self-esteem. And feeling sexually attractive is surely a good thing for your overall self-esteem and intimate relationships. There is still a long way to go in portraying female, intersex, and trans genitalia, as well as dismantling the narrow and damaging vulval archetype.”
What your vulva does (or does not) look like does not determine your value as a person, and does not make something wrong with you. It is perfect just the way it is. It will not look like anyone else’s. While there may be similarities between yours and a friend’s say, your vulva is uniquely yours — own it.
Oh, and make sure you get to know your vulva well enough so that you will notice if anything is amiss. It might just save your life.